ULYSSES S. Grant in 1885 was not the first President to write after leaving the White House (John Quincy Adams penned 12 volumes of ``Memoirs''), but he was the most modern in his form. He was also the best performer in his literary tasks. Grant was an unlikely candidate to write good memoirs. ``As a lad,'' read an 1885 biography, ``he did not betray any remarkable talent for learning.'' When he graduated from West Point in 1843, his ranking was 21 in a class of 39. After he left the Army in 1854, his career as a farmer and clerk in a Galena, Ill., leather store was nothing to write home about.
The Civil War gave Grant a new lease on life, which he handled with skill. But his two terms as President were disappointments, with his military colleague, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, describing Grant as ``very deficient in the qualities of a statesman.'' A post-presidential tour of Europe and Asia revived Grant's spirit, but it did nothing for his wealth, which he lost as a result of manipulation by an unscrupulous businessman.
So Grant turned to writing his memoirs to eke out an existence. Thanks to the intervention of his astute friend, Mark Twain, he would get a generous contract that would ensure that his family would live debt-free. But due to illness Grant had one final battle to fight: a race with time. He completed his book one week before he passed away.
What's so impressive about Grant's memoirs is the clear-cut writing and utter lack of complaining about the world he lived in. Dealing mostly with the military history of the Civil War, the memoirs tell it as it was: ``As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see [Col. Thomas] Harris's camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back [home] in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on. When we reached a point from which the valley below was in full view, I halted. The place where Harris had been encamped a few days before was still there and the marks of a recent encampment were plainly visible, but the troops were gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him.''
His recollection of the events was superb, although source materials were not available to him. His commentary -- sometimes controversial -- was judiciously stated, as illustrated by the following: ``I always admired the South, as bad as I thought their cause, for the boldness with which they silenced all opposition and all croaking, by press or by individuals, within their control. War at all times, whether a civil war between sections of a common country or between nations, ought to be avoided, if possible with honor. But once entered into, it is too much for human nature to tolerate an enemy within their ranks to give aid and comfort to the armies of the opposing section or nation.''
Grant's view of Lincoln's Reconstruction policy is in line with contemporary historical analysis. ``. . . but for the assassination of Mr. Lincoln, I believe the great majority of the Northern people, and the soldiers unanimously, would have been in favor of a speedy reconstruction on terms that would be the least humiliating to the people who had rebelled against their government. They believed, I have no doubt, as I did that besides being the mildest it was also the wisest policy.''
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.